OVERTON PARK SHELL, MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE

Located at Overton Park, 2080 Poplar Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, with 4,000 seats, opened his doors on 7:30 Sunday, September 1936 of Mayor Watkins Overton in his dedication speech: "We are not satisfied to made Memphis a great commercial center. We want to make Memphis the cultural and musical center of the Mid-South as well".

The trademark, pastel-coloured rainbow speaks of happy times and momentous events. The Depression's effect on Memphis was in part responsible for the creation of the $11.933 Shell. The Public Works Administration arrived in Memphis in 1934 and expended almost $9 million for large-scale construction projects. Memphians went to work painting, building, repairing streets, and resurfacing sidewalks - from which the Shell evolved quite naturally in 1936.

As the Depression era waned, the Shell continued as a popular entertainment outlet. The Memphis Open Air Theater (MOAT), which evolved from local thespians performing their magic on an impromptu dirt stage in 1932, began its premiere season of five shows in 1938. Led by the original producers, Mt. and Mrs. Ralph Dunbar, MOAT traversed a 14-year, 89-production roller coaster ride through budget highs and lows.

New York's Metropolitan Opera acquired several vocalists from the playlists of MOAT, one of whom remains a Memphis favorite: Marguerite Piazza. She debuted with MOAT in 1950 playing the lead in Rose Marie and went on to become a MOAT star as well as one of the Shell's most beloved regulars. Peaking at season attendance highs of 105,000 during 1946-1948, MOAT's days in the sun faded in 1951 as it sank under the weight of continuing deficits and sagging attendance, caused in part by the advent of air conditioning and television.

Resiliently, the Shell revived again in the 1950s with Music Under The Stars, a Tuesday evening series led by Noel Gilbert and the Memphis Concert Orchestra. These programs marked a significant change for Shell attendees: free admission. That Tuesday tradition continued for over 30 years, funded by a partnership of the Park Commission and National Federation of Musicians.

It was also in the 1950s that the Shell unwittingly became the launching pad for a uniquely American form of music: rock and roll. Elvis Presley made his first major concert appearance in Memphis at the Overton Park Band Shell on July 30, 1954 as the opening act for Slim Whitman marked the "coming out party" for rock music at the Shell. Less than two weeks later, on August 10, 1954, Elvis Presley performed two show at the Overton Park Band Shell. One year later, on August 5, 1955, Elvis Presley was the headline act at Overton Park. Opening for Elvis Presley, and making their first concert appearance were Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two. By this time Elvis' popularity was well established; he was pushed farther into fame with every hysterical scream from the crowd. Following his performances, Elvis Presley's work at the Shell fueled public recognition, and his career skyrocketed, igniting national enthusiasm - and disdain - for this new music phenomenon. Whether viewed as a gift of a curse, rock and roll was here to stay.

The Shell played host to other rock and roll pioneers - many were artists for Memphis' Sun Record label: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Warren Smith, Roy Orbison, Eddie Bond, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Then showcase rambles joined hometown favourites from the rhythm and blues sector. Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus Thomas, Furry Lewis, and Isaac Hayes helped give Memphis a musical signature from the legendary Shell stage.

But by the late 1960s, many in the community considered it a "white elephant", and, in 1965, it became the target of the Memphis Little Theater, which wanted to replace the Shell with an indoor theater. A reprieve came when the Memphis Park Commission decided to find another site for the popular Music Under The Stars before destroying the structure. The grim reaper came around again in 1966 when the Park Commission placed the Shell's destiny in the hands of the Memphis Arts Council, which had plans for a $2 million performing arts complex in Overton Park. Once more, the Shell faced extinction. This time, conductor Noel Gilbert became the saviour who defied the bell's toll, gathering enough protest signature to force the Park Commission to reconsider.

Ironically, rock and roll posed the next threat to the Shell's survival. Although the performances that audiences had enjoyed continued in their diverse variety through the early 1970s, rock and roll had undergone significant changes resulting in younger audiences. Rock's voice had become more influential than ever, issuing a clarion call to young people. Nationally, this incurred the wrath of more hidebound elders, who were appalled and irritated at the social and more changes assaulting their social equilibrium. Long hair, drugs use, and the rebellious, freestyle attitudes of the "hippie generation" arrived in Memphis, flaunting openly and unabashedly in Overton Park. A collision between youth and the establishment was inevitable.

Local Newspapers covered the Shell in depth, focusing on the peculiarities of the patrons. Run-ins with the police were common, and headlines trumpeted these confrontations. Noise level complaints from area residents and clashes with security brought out a virtual army of police. Concert promoters and the Park Commission shared the steep cost of these security measures.

Then the Park Commission suddenly changed the ground rules. Where rental of the Shell had been an affordable $300 an additional $2,000 deposit was now required. Adding insult to injury, the entire cost for the additional security would be borne solely by the promoters instead of being shared. Outraged, promoters struck back vocally, and antagonism coloured the relationships.

Though loud and crude, these rock concerts remain some of the best-attended events in Shell history. Over 50 concerts were scheduled in 1971, drawing 8,000 to 9,000 spectators listening to popular groups that included the Allman Brothers, the James Gang, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, ZZ Top, Jimi Hendrix, and Poco.

Rock's last gasp at the Shell in this era occurred after a 1975 Seals and Crotts concert, which drew 21,000 people. For an arena designed to seat only 4,000, this scene of potential disaster was remarkably incidentfree. Regardless, the Shell afterwards settled into a formula of showcasing free events by local artists. Notably absent were regular rock and roll performances.

September 1982 saw this outdoor facility dedicated with a new name: Raoul Wallenberg/Overton Park Shell. Wallenberg, Sweden's ambassador to Austria during World War II, was credited with saving over 100,000 Jews from Nazi concentration camps, and a plaque was erected in his honour. In light of this celebration and the lack of any other controversies, Shell supporters became cautiously optimistic for a secure, if somewhat subdued, future. But a new threat now came from its next door neighbor, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Their expansion plans called for a parking lot and the Shell's demise. It was April, 1984, and the old amphitheater was drawing its last breath.

With demolition already underway, John Vincent Hanrahan, an environmentalist who grew up attending Shell events, begged for permission to intervene before the historic arena completely disappeared. This time, Hanrahan was the Shell's saviour, arriving at more realistic cost estimates to repair the Shell by relying heavily on volunteer labor and donated materials.

Only in 1985 was the Shell dark and empty as bureaucratic indecision left its continuity in limbo. Finally, then-mayor Dick Hackett committed to the Shell's refurbishing if a private group would coordinate an ongoing arts program for it. Hope glimmered briefly, then was snuffed out again when Hanrahan was killed in an on-the-job accident. Yet when Hanrahan's brother, Michael, brought a wreath to the Shell stage the day after his brother's funeral, family members and friends gathered and began sprucing up the dilapidated setting. That day marked the inception of today's Save Our Shell (SOS).

Volunteer labor, donated materials, community support, and SOS' first president, David Leonard, ensured the Shell's half-century celebration on September 13, 1986 - 50 years to the day after its premiere. The phoenixlike Shell was reborn in an atmosphere welcoming home old friends, as a capacity crowd of over 4,000 watched hundreds of multicolored balloons drift upwards, signalling the start of the evening's entertainment.

Since that night in 1986, the all volunteer SOS has preserved the Shell from extinction by tirelessly scheduling hundreds of events and continuous upgrading. Today, the Overton Park Band Shell is still stands today, and even though the stage and rows of wooden seats have a new coat of white paint, the feeling of the place vintage 1954 remains. Stand on the stage and look out into the rows of seats; it is not difficult to imagine a nineteen-year old Elvis Presley standing on the same stage, or to imagine what he felt when he began to sing. The stage that first showcased rock and roll and gave extensive exposure to blues recording artists has contributed to fulfilling Overton's vision "to make Memphis the musical center of the Mid-South".

The Shell has been preserved from demolition by a "Save the Shell" committee "Sedroc", located at 1725 B Madison Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee 38104 by secretary Joel Hurley. We are fortunate to have this priceless bit of place history today.

In 2007, the Park Shell was renamed Levitt Shell at Overton Park and a large-scale renovation funded by the Levitt Foundation took place. The renovation was conducted by Memphis firm Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects with state-of-the-art audio and visual design. With the completion of the renovations on September 8, 2008, free concerts are now once again held in the Shell. The Shell offers concerts on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights during its spring and fall seasons.

 

© 2013 Levitt Shell.